‘It’s Alive! It’s Alive!’ Maybe Right Here on Earth


molecules-scienceThe New York Times reports: San Diego – Here in a laboratory perched on the edge of the continent, researchers are trying to construct Life As We Don’t Know It in a thimbleful of liquid.

Generations of scientists, children and science fiction fans have grown up presuming that humanity’s first encounter with alien life will happen in a red sand dune on Mars, or in an enigmatic radio signal from some obscure star.

But it could soon happen right here on Earth, according to a handful of chemists and biologists who are using the tools of modern genetics to try to generate the Frankensteinian spark that will jump the gap separating the inanimate and the animate. The day is coming, they say, when chemicals in a test tube will come to life.

By some measures, Gerald F. Joyce, a professor at the Scripps Research Institute here, has already crossed that line, although he would be the first to say he has not – yet.

“Everything we know about life is based on studies of life on Earth,” said Chris McKay, a researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Laboratory in Mountain View, Calif.

Four years ago Dr. Joyce and a graduate student, Tracey A. Lincoln, now a researcher at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, evolved a molecule in a test tube that could replicate and evolve all by itself, swapping little jerry-built genes in a test tube forever, as long as it was supplied with the right carefully engineered ingredients.

An article in the Joyce Laboratory newsletter called it “The Immortal Molecule.” Dr. Joyce’s molecule is a form of RNA, or ribonucleic acid. Neither RNA nor DNA is alive by itself, any more than any other chemical, like bleach, or a protein. But in Dr. Joyce’s test tube, his specially engineered RNA molecule comes close, copying itself over and over, and evolving.

But, Dr. Joyce says, “We really would hope for more from our molecules than just replicating.”

Reproduction is the job of any life, he explained, but Earthly organisms have evolved a spectacular set of tricks to improve the odds of success – everything from peacock feathers to whale songs. Dr. Joyce’s molecules have not yet surprised him by striking out on their own to invent the molecular equivalent of writing a hit pop song.

It is only a matter of time, he said, before they do.

“Our job is to give them the running room to do that,” Dr. Joyce said.

The deeper philosophical and intellectual ramifications of test tube life are as enormous as they are unknown. The achievement would probably not come with sci-fi drama, say scientists who are squeamish about such matters anyway, saying such speculation is beyond their pay grade. No microbe is going to leap out of the Petri dish and call home, or turn the graduate students into zombies. Indeed, given the human penchant for argument and scientists’ habit of understatement, it could be years before everybody agrees it has been done.

“The ability to synthesize life will be an event of profound importance, like the invention of agriculture or the invention of metallurgy,” Freeman Dyson, a mathematician and physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, wrote in an e-mail. “Nobody can tell in advance what will come of it.”

On Earth, all life as we know it is based on DNA, the carbon-based molecule that contains the instructions for making and operating living cells in a four-letter alphabet along its double-helix spine.

The possibilities of a second example of life are as deep as the imagination. It could be based on DNA that uses a different genetic code, with perhaps more or fewer than four letters; it could be based on some complex molecule other than DNA, or more than the 20 amino acids from which our own proteins are made, or even some kind of chemistry based on something other than carbon and the other elements that we take for granted, like phosphorous or iron. Others wonder whether chemistry is necessary at all.

Dr. Joyce said that his RNA replicators would count as such a “second example, albeit one constructed as a homage to our ancient ancestors.”

So far, he said, his work with Dr. Lincoln has shown that manmade molecules can evolve over successive generations. “They can pass information from parent to progeny, they can mutate,” Dr. Joyce said. “They can win or die. The molecules are doing it all. We’re just keeping the lights on.”

Dr. Joyce’s molecules may not be clever enough yet to qualify as life in his view, but all sorts of alternatives are being explored in other labs.

Some researchers, like Steven Benner of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Florida, are constructing and experimenting with forms of DNA that use coding alphabets of more than four letters. J. Craig Venter, who helped spearhead the decoding of the human genome and now works as president of the J. Craig Venter Institute, recently used store-bought chemicals to reconstruct the genome of a bacterial goat parasite and put it in another bacterium, where it took over, churning out copies of itself with Dr. Venter’s watermark inscribed in its gene code.

In a related vein, George Church and Farren Isaacs of the Harvard Medical School recently reported that they had reprogrammed the genome of an E. Coli bacterium, opening up the possibility of incorporating new features into the ubiquitous little bug. Dr. Joyce called the work “really macho molecular biotechnology.”

Jack Szostak of Harvard Medical School and his collaborators have embarked on an ambitious project to build an artificial cell that can replicate and presumably evolve. Dr. Benner wrote in an e-mail, “In my view, a terran laboratory will make synthetic life before NASA or the E.S.A. finds it elsewhere,” referring to the European Space Agency. He added, “And a lot before, given the disassembling of NASA by the current administration.”

{Read more: The New York Times/Matzav.com Newscenter} 


  1. Just a shame that we (atleast those of us who pay taxes) have to pay for all this, via federal grants and subsidized scholarships.

    Just a point to ponder, are these lunatics considered parasites to society, as our brothers are looked upon in Israel?

  2. !, you know how it works. It’s fine to pay someone to throw a ball, read books, do dumb experiments, whatever; unless they’re upholding existence through Torah, then it’s charity.